Historically, women around the world have tried to end unwanted pregnancies whether abortion is legal or not, often jeopardizing their safety and health by self-inducing or seeking a dangerous illegal procedure.
While there is very little relationship between abortion legality and abortion incidence, there is a strong correlation between abortion legality and abortion safety.
The World Health Organization defines unsafe abortion as a procedure for terminating a pregnancy that is performed by an individual lacking the necessary skills, or in an environment that does not conform to minimal medical standards, or both. Unsafe abortion is common in places where abortion is illegal. Nearly half of all abortions worldwide are unsafe, and nearly all unsafe abortions occur in developing countries. In countries where abortion remains unsafe, it is a leading cause of maternal mortality.
Women who have unsafe abortions are at risk of serious medical problems, including incomplete abortion, hemorrhage (heavy bleeding), infection, uterine perforation (caused when the uterus is pierced by a sharp object), and damage to the genital tract and internal organs (by inserting dangerous objects such as sticks, knitting needles, or broken glass into the vagina or anus). Each year around 7 million women are admitted to hospitals for complications of unsafe abortion and between 4.7% – 13.2% of maternal deaths can be attributed to unsafe abortion.
Highly restrictive abortion laws are not associated with lower abortion rates. According to the Guttmacher Institute, the abortion rate is 37 per 1,000 women in countries that prohibit abortion altogether or allow it only to save a woman’s life, and 34 per 1,000 in countries that allow abortion without restriction as to reason.
Estimates of the number of illegal abortions in the United States, in the 1950s and 1960s range from 200,000 to 1.2 million per year. Today, abortion is one of the most commonly performed clinical procedures in the United States, and the death rate from abortion is extremely low: 0.6 per 100,000 procedures, according to the World Health Organization.
Legalization of abortion allows women to obtain timely abortions, thereby reducing the risk of complications. In 1970, one in four abortions in the United States took place at or after 13 weeks gestation. In 2015, 91 percent of abortions were performed within the first trimester, with 65 percent performed at or under eight weeks gestation.
Access to safe and legal abortion is vital to women’s health and well-being.
For more information on efforts to make abortion safe and legal in the United States, see U.S. Abortion History.